The EU Blue Card Compromise and Its Unclear Effects on the “Brain Drain”

By: Amy Tu, Assistant Contributor

On January 25, 2013, the European Commission (EC) announced a wide-spread call to action to alleviate Europe’s growing digital skills gap. European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes addressed his call to action to “companies, governments, educators, social partners, employment service providers and civil society” to provide training, education, and other means of filling the prospective 700,000 unfilled Information Communications Technology (ICT) positions in the European Union (EU). Kroes emphasized that the ICT sector is “the new backbone of Europe’s economy,” and filling these positions is vital to ameliorating Europe’s declining competitiveness in this field.

In addition to Kroes’s forceful press release, the EU is faced with falling birth rates and shifting demographics, which will heighten the EU’s need for skilled labor in the ICT sector. estimated that “the EU’s working age population will decrease by 50 million by 2050.” The EU’s already growing need to fill ICT positions combined with its decreasing population will likely result in the increased reliance on the EU’s Blue Card Directive, which some find controversial.

Adopted in May 2009 by the European Commission, the Blue Card Directive represents an effort to attract highly skilled workers from outside the EU. Specifically, the purpose of the Blue Card is to allow professionals who qualify as highly-skilled workers to apply for work permits and obtain long-term residency status faster and with greater ease than before. Moreover, unlike some of the national immigration structures already in place in EU member states, the Blue Card allows for easier access to visas for accompanying family members and increased mobility across most EU member states.

Despite the need for highly skilled workers, however, some EU member states have been resistant to its implementation. The EC required implementation of the Blue Card Directive in all EU member states by June 2011, but six states failed to meet the deadline: Germany, Portugal, Italy, Malta, Poland, and Sweden. Currently, most of these EU member states have begun to implement the Directive, but specific regulations and information remains unclear. Additionally, the Blue Card Directive has received opposition because of its purported exacerbation of the “brain drain” on developing countries.

How Does the Blue Card Work?

In an effort to increase Europe’s economic competitiveness, the Blue Card aims to attract highly skilled third-country nationals by offering a simplified and fast-track immigration process for obtaining work and residency permits in EU member states. The EC’s original proposal sought to replace national immigration procedures in order to create a single unified process across all member states. However, the current scheme represents a compromise where EU member states retain their national immigration process and discretion in implementing the Blue Card directive. The individual EU member states retain final decision-making power as to whether a Blue Card will be granted and each country uses its own market tests, varying definitions of “highly skilled,” and different salary thresholds in determining application requirements. In an article authored by the European Policy Centre, the Blue Card merely represents another avenue of entry into the EU via a unified process, but it does not eliminate or harmonize the 27 immigration policies in place across member states.

In Germany, for example, a Blue Card applicant must meet the following requirements: The applicant must be a citizen of a non-EU- country who has obtained a) a German university degree or a university degree from an accredited foreign institution and b) has obtained an employment contract with a gross annual compensation of at least 46,400€ (3,867€ per month). Alternatively, if the proposed position is within a field that Germany considers “critical” and in an “occupation in shortage” (e.g. scientists, mathematics, engineers, doctors and IT-skilled workers), then the minimum salary requirement is lowered to 36,192€ per year (3,016€ per month).

In Germany, the Blue Card is valid for a maximum of four years or for the duration of the employment contract, whichever is shorter. Additionally, a Blue Card holder can apply for permanent residency after 33 months of residence. If minimum German proficiency levels are met, Blue Card holders can apply for permanent residence after only 21 months. Moreover, accompanying spouses of Blue Card holders do not need to demonstrate any level of German proficiency and receive unrestricted employment authorization. After 18 months of residence in Germany, the Blue Card holder can choose to relocate to any other EU member state without an application for a new visa or Blue Card with the exception of some non-participating states.

While many of the above requirements and benefits apply to EU Blue Cards issued in other EU member states, there are some variations. For instance, the minimum salary requirement in France must be at least 1.5 times the average gross market salary determined annually by the Minister of Immigration. Accordingly, in November 2012, the minimum salary required was 52,752€ gross annual salary. Additionally, a Blue Card applicant in France must present a “diploma attesting to at least 3 years of higher education, issued by a higher education institution recognised by the State in which it is situated OR proof of 5 years of professional experience at a comparable level.” An initial Blue Card issued in France is valid for one to three years, depending on the duration of the employment contract.

As the examples of Germany and France show, application requirements for the Blue Card vary across EU member states. briefly outlines some of the unanswered questions and issues arising from these inconsistencies. Additionally, practical information regarding application processes and document requirements in order to obtain a Blue Card may be difficult to find. For instance, the German Blue Card application website offers only poor English translations of its content. Accordingly, applicants who are not proficient in German may encounter problems navigating the complex document requirements and application procedures even though the Blue Card application itself does not require German proficiency. Nonetheless, applicants have started posting their résumés on the Blue Card website in the hopes of being recruited by country-specific employers.

The Blue Card Will Have a Limited Impact on Brain Drain in Developing Countries

Although the Blue Card has the potential of exacerbating the brain drain in developing countries, the EC’s preventative measures and the high unemployment rates in European member states will limit the impact of the Blue Card on the brain drain in developing countries. Since the EC announced its Blue Card proposal, several entities have voiced their concern that the Blue Card will add to the negative impact of the brain drain in developing countries. For instance, in an article released in 2007, the EU Observer quoted former South Africa Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang who expressed deep concerns regarding the Blue Card’s potential to deplete the very limited supply of human capital in the health care field in South Africa. Additionally, harshly criticized and accused the Blue Card of being in direct conflict with EU development policies designed to support the UN’s Millennium Development Goals of ending poverty.

In 2007, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a comprehensive report regarding the impact of labor mobility for both sending and receiving countries before the implementation of the Blue Card. While the report noted that the data was insufficient to make broad generalizations, OECD found that the area most affected by the emigration of the highly educated population is sub-Saharan Africa. The report stated that the loss of skills for the sending country also resulted in losses in innovation, investment in education, and tax revenues. Furthermore, the report found that the loss of highly skilled workers had the greatest impact on the health and education sectors. Additional social costs listed in the report were disparities across regions, strains on families and gender roles, schooling of children, and crime rates.

On the other hand, the OECD report also noted the positive impacts of labor migration. Notably, in 2005, remittances sent home by migrant workers working abroad amounted to $232 billion with 72% going to developing countries. Additionally, the return of migrant workers to their sending countries encourages the circulation of skills and thereby beneficially impacts sending countries. Finally, the OECD report proposed that both sending and receiving countries examine their development policies through a “migration lens” in order to maximize the utilization of the existing human capital. The report further recommended greater coherence in immigration policies and partnerships between sending and receiving countries to minimize the harmful impacts of labor migration.

While the actual impact remains to be seen, the EC has worked to preempt the negative impact on developing nations by implementing “ethical recruitment standards” and by promoting circular migration. For instance, the EC stated that it would limit, if not eliminate, recruitment of employees in developing nations like Africa. Additionally, opponents of the Blue Card argue that the path to permanent residency offered by the Blue Card threatens the remittances returning workers bring back to sending countries. However, the EC counteracts this effect by encouraging EU member states to allow longer periods of absences without interrupting continuous residency requirements to incentivize highly skilled workers to return home. For example, high skilled workers would be allowed to remain outside Germany for up to twelve months and return to their home country without interrupting continuous residency requirements. Moreover, even though a shortage of highly skilled workers currently exists in the ICT sector, high unemployment rates and sluggish economies will likely deter EU member states from granting numerous Blue Cards overall. As the Blue Card is demand-driven, the individual member states can regulate the number of Blue Cards issued each year. Therefore, EU member states can further regulate the number of Blue Cards given to applicants from developing nations.  Accordingly, developing countries may worry about the effects of the brain drain due to the implementation of the Blue Card, but with the EC’s preventative efforts and the current unemployment levels of the EU, the potential for brain drain impacts will be limited.



Additional resources for readers (Added on 10/12/17)

Working in Germany: Getting a German Work Permit

EU Blue Card Germany